Posted on August 16, 2017
A Man who couldn’t be chained up, with some violent form of possession, is freed from ‘what ails him’. But rather than the forces disappearing into thin air, Jesus allows them to cause a final and more socially impactful act: to enter and then kill a herd of pigs. And, not just kill them, they go off a cliff and drown in dramatic lemming-style!
As John Walton says, the scriptures are “not written to us, but they are written for us.” So, it is important to hear these stories (as much as we can) through the ears of the original hearers. There are a few aspects that become much more significant and symbolic in the 1st century context and it is important for us to pick those up in order to faithful translate any understanding today.
A short thought on Connection, Disconnection and Spiritual Powers
In the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, Jesus speaks to the ‘legion’ of forces controlling the man who has been isolated, labeled, and cast off from his community. Firstly, this is an important and concretely social reality employed by the forces of of darkness that we should not over-spiritualise.
Many of God’s commands to His people encourage our concrete relational connection to others2 as the expression of God’s action of reconciling us to Himself in Christ. So, whenever we look at places where people find themselves isolated; imprisoned, hospitalised, impoverished, and marginalised, we should expect the powers are at play either as the source of disconnection or exacerbating the circumstances of disconnection.
Looking into the original context
1) Devastating the local economy to reveal one persons worth
It was Mike Pilavachi who I first heard mention this aspect of the story. The pigs more than likely represented one the main local industries in an agricultural context. It was not just a few pigs, these were pigs that represented income or significant assets to many in this region.
But why devastate the local economy? Well, potentially it as devastating enough to create some serious ‘buzz’ around Jesus’ presence and power. It’s far reaching impact is possibly how the story has been preserved in the gospels for us. But, this doesn’t seem that convincing to me, in many places Jesus’ still seems to be keeping his activity and even identity under wraps and so parlour tricks to gain an audience doesn’t really seem his style.
One possible theory could be that while a community has chained this man up outside of their belonging, Jesus is demonstrating that the Kingdoms that are clashing can not just be pushed out to the margins. In an act of both witness and judgement (read consequence) the community loses it’s wealth for neglecting its vulnerable. Whenever I have encountered someone in the state described in this story, they are rarely only a product of their own sin, but have often been sinned against in wounding and terrorizing ways. Finally, This is two thousand pigs, a significant asset for this region, and yet Jesus is revealing the worth of this one man.
2) Revealing both a rebuke and an invitation to gentiles
Jesus is clearly ministering in a gentile area, why else farm pigs if only kosher-observant Jews were around? By ministering in this area he is already bending the Israel-centric salvation understandings that are present in the 1st century. Deliverance, power-display, not just party tricks but a deliverance fore-taste, beginning with Israel, but with the intention to spill out for all the nations of the earth. Jesus is bringing the kingdom near to those understood to be on the outside of what he was about.
Pigs were literally the unclean and untouchable animals for Jews. Essentially in a Jewish mind, Jesus is sending darkness into filth. Jesus was making the point that even though he ministers in a gentile area that he has come to ‘fulfill the law, not to abolish it’. There non-Jewish ways and the darkness they are under are connected.
3) Let my People Go – Echoes of an Egyptian Deliverance
This year3, I’ve realised how important the themes of exile and deliverance are in Jesus’ actions. Much of Jesus’ life and activity in the New Testament is presented in the gospels as a new exile in reference particularly to the story of Israel being delivered from Egyptian Slavery.
In the context of 1st century Palestine there was a striking sense that the Roman occupation of the land was another slavery and another exile. The Pharisee’s, Saducees and revolutionaries are all looking for a new age of deliverance and for a Moses to deliver them from this new Pharaoh, Rome. Jesus presented the Kingdom as a direct opposition to Rome’s occupation. ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God’ were all terms reserved for the Caesar’s, so Jesus is not just revealing YHWH but dethroning Rome’s claim to being the incarnation of god that Jesus is enacting.
Richard Hays says;
“No first-century reader would need to be reminded that the Legions stationed throughout the Mediterranean world and ready to respond to rebellion and revolt belonged to Rome. When Jesus then powerfully dispatches the demons into a herd of unclean pigs who plunge to their death in the sea, Mark hardly needs to explain the joke. It is a kind of political cartoon, in which the Roman army is driven out by Israel’s true king, sent back into the sea from which their invading ships had come.”
Only having this quote to work with, I’m not sure if Hays make the closer connection, but as soon as I had read this I thought of the ultimate act of deliverance as Israel crossed the Red Sea which then swallowed up it’s oppressors. Jesus here seems to delivering this man, while sending off a demonic legion (presented as a parable of the Roman oppressors, and an echo of the egyptian chariots) into the sea.
God’s people’s deliverance and God’s judgement on the powers that oppose Him are one act. Superb.
The story in Mark ends with the community afraid, presumably of more economic disrupt, begging Jesus to leave. The newly clothed and right-minded demoniac begs to join the travelling band of Kingdom announcers. Jesus’ instead, commissions him to go tell of what had happened, maybe as the first evangelist to the gentiles?
So, hopefully that helps you understand (at least a little more) why a bunch of pigs had to die. Happy to hear new thoughts or challenges to some of these sketches in the comments below.
- Much of the content here was inspired by Andrew Wilson’s post on Think Theology on this Gospel story where he quotes Richard Hays work. I’ve added a few additional observations and theories as they came to me reflecting on the passage, the article and Hay’s quote. ↩
- click here for some examples. ↩
- reading especially the work of Tom Wright and Peter Leithart ↩
Posted on July 30, 2017
Often we mistake the opposite of Love as hate, but in fact it is fear. There are things worth fearing, but fear as an undertone of life, relationships and society does not produce flourishing as God intended it.
Here Rabbi Jonathan Sacks does an incredible job at naming what is ailing us and offering interpersonal solutions to large scale problems. It is worth watching, probably a couple of times.
Posted on June 2, 2017
I’ve been reading and enjoying the work of Robert Webber recently. Webber led a change in evangelical circles to recover some of the treasures from the early church into our (post)modern mission, worship and thinking.
In the appendix of his book ‘Ancient Worship’ he gives a short critique of modern evangelical modes or ways of practising faith (pp.182).
He lists a number of aspects common to modern evangelical expressions of faith, but the following three caught my attention;
- Mere intellectual knowledge (Simply something to be understood)
- Overly therapeutic focus (focussed on healing or fulfilling people)
- New Age Gnosticism (experience-oriented, otherworldy focus)
He goes on to say, each of these focusses leave the Church with a lived experience that is inadequate for the challenges we face in today’s world.
I think Webber’s list is very perceptive and it led me to consider how each of these exists today (almost 10 years after the book was published).
I think each of these aspects have actually become streams or denominations within current evangelical Protestantism. Without naming names, it is fairly straightforward to see how certain popular movements within evangelicalism fit into one of these categories. While each of these aspects can often be grounded in desires that fit within true Christian spirituality, they are often touted as the only or most-important aspects of spiritual life. It is normally this over emphasis that leads them to be destructive.
The Destructive focusses of evangelicalism explained
A sole focus on Intellectual knowledge
While it is true that Christian life must be grounded in thinking that comes from a mind renewed, often those who prescribe a renewal of intellectual vigour towards the scriptures and theology are in their own way succumbing to the desire to ‘sum it all up’ and in that way ‘control’ their environment. Even the most articulate and orthodox expressions can be dead shells of the lived Christian experience.
A sole focus on the Therapeutic
True Christian Spirituality heals, forms and reforms people out of their brokenness and pain, into people who are humble, aware of their weakness and in many ways whole-hearted people. But often the therapeutic impulse unchecked ends up turning Christian spirituality into a space where transformation is for one’s own sake. Inner Healing becomes an endless investigation into one’s own navel. Ultimately the fruits are people who are self-absorbed and only relate to others in a helper mode. While inner healing focus’ look caring they can sometimes entail the very nature of sinfulness, which as Luther termed it, is being ‘curved in on oneself’.
A sole focus on New-age Gnosticism / Experientialism
True Christian spirituality involves experiencing the empowering presence of God in a way that gives life, love and wholeness to all their being. New Age Gnosticism though, is fixated on experience as its goal. Consistently chasing and then comparing experience, it creates side projects of extra-biblical theories and special areas of knowledge that have come from these experiences. The highest goal is to feel and anything that doesn’t create that feeling is not God. Another outcome of this is an invisible focus which leads to a dualism where the world is bad and heaven is good. The goal then becomes to go to heaven and leave the earth to go to hell. As G.K. Chesterton said, it is possible to be “less orthodox by being more spiritual.”
How to Reconstruct Christian Spirituality
In many ways what I have described above might poke a little close to home for you. The reason is likely that the most destructive errors are the ones which border the true sources of life. As I mentioned above, a renewed mind, a whole-heartedness, and a Spirit-empowered life are at the centre of true Christian Spirituality. But Protestantism seems to endless produce tribal groups that focus on one of God’s gifts to the point where the people they form end up limping in their discipleship. It is increasingly popular to be parasitic and endlessly deconstruct evangelicalism but that is not my goal here. I want to observe these traits in order to consider how they might be redeemed and renewed in order for evangelical Christians to reclaim their witness and vocation.
So what is the remedy to these disfigurements of true Christian Spirituality?
While it would be fairly presumptuous and simplistic to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for the state of 21st Century Christianity, I have a couple of thoughts on how we might recover some of these excesses;
A return to the Biblical narrative
All of the errors that I mentioned above are practised and perpetuated by a lack of grounding in the biblical narrative. Now, I don’t mean by this, biblical knowledge. Many of the streams involved in these areas can quote bible verses to back their focus. But what is missing, is recognising the great arch of the biblical narrative, creation-Israel-Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-Ascension-Pentecost, is a narrative we are invited to participate in. This requires teaching, sung worship and life together to include continual remembrances of what God has done in His salvation history. This would encourage us to see our place within it so that we can faithfully work towards the fulfillment of this great story that we are called to live in.
The Mission of God
When the biblical narrative is what grounds Christian life, We realise we are involved in the story of God, which is the mission of God. Not just some narrowly defined evangelism project, but that all of our lives are in the midst of something God is doing to reconcile all of Creation to Himself. The mission of God helps us recognise that the goal of Christian life is to be other-centred. Intellectualism can be a way to feel smarter than others, a Therapeutic focus can be a way to feel more compassionate than others, Gnosticism can be a way to feel more special than others. Each of these errors are essentially about the individual, not ordered towards God’s creation that is waiting to be reconciled with their Creator.
A commitment to Christian Community
God’s salvation story and His mission help us recognise that the purpose of a renewed mind, a whole heart, and a Spirit-empowered life is that we would show the world what God looks like. God is three persons in one, a loving communion that spills over into the life-giving act of creation. He is calling us to be one body, united in his son and in our love for one another, for the sake of the world. Community isn’t a nice addition to Christian life, it is both the vehicle and the goal of God’s mission. We can’t learn to love and live for others without being in close God-imaging community with others. As Lesslie Newbiggin has said, ‘the Church is the hermeneutic of the Gospel’. Christian communities are the way in which the world sees whether the Gospel is true or not.
The biblical story reminds us that there is ‘too much of a good thing’, in fact, when God’s good things get disordered in the hearts and minds of His people, it is called idolatry. It is worth reflecting on whether we are committed to thinking better, being more healed, experiencing God in ways that could actually be keeping us from God Himself.
I once heard someone poetically say that “music is beauty over time.” I like that.
This season for the Church Calendar is the start of the year. Much like when Sunday was the beginning of the week and was set aside for sabbath. How we count time is important, it reminds us of the story we understand ourselves in.
Here are a few pieces of Advent and Christmas-time music from a few different genres that you might enjoy;
The Brilliance | May you find a light
Lauren Daigle | Light of the World
Kings College, Cambridge | Herefordshire Carole
Kings College, Cambridge | O Come all yet Faithful
Kings Kaleidoscope – All Glory Be To Christ
Chris Tomlin | Come thou long expected Jesus
Leave your own suggestions in the comments below
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Posted on December 16, 2016
In part one, I looked at wine through scripture and it’s particular relationship to us remembering Jesus. This week, I’m reflecting on how wine operates in our society and how it relates to our Christian life.
In our modern lives, we are very disconnected from agricultural life. Our food and wine are not fruits of our own labours in the direct way that most people throughout history. We are deaf to the agricultural parables strewn throughout scripture. Indeed the powerful and important images of vineyards and vines are central metaphors for our belonging to God as a new testament people. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he is always referencing agriculture.
Protestantism particularly has attempted to distance itself from what has been called, natural theology, which broadly speaking is, the revelation of God in the natural world. As protestants have rightly sought to assert that we know God in and through Christ, we have created an either/or dichotomy that holds us back from enjoying God’s gifts and enjoying God in his gift of the created world. Often we are looking for signs of God’s activity and His presence to us, and primarily we are looking for what we understand to be supernatural and therefore immaterial signs and presences instead of the natural graces and signposts placed all around us in creation. Could we be cutting ourselves off from a sense of God’s nearness and sustaining hope because we cannot perceive it in the created order that surrounds us?
Wine production also becomes an allegory for our lives as Christians as John’s gospel reveals; The nature of the fruitful Christian life;
- We are connected to one another, our life is a shared one by it’s very nature.
- We are to bear fruit, to give away the labours of our cultivation, to be more than we were at first.
- We are to be planted, to root ourselves in a particular place and surrounding.
- We are called to react and pay attention to our surroundings, just like a vine displays the characteristics of its context, the weather conditions maybe, it is not a one-size fits all mass production.
Cultural immaturity, emotional vulnerability and our relationship to wine
Considering the place of wine in certain cultures is fascinating. Some cultures have a shared cultural memory, a cultural significance and even a cultural wisdom as it relates to wine. Other cultures have had much less exposure to wine, and are in fact marked by exposure to other alcoholic drinks. But there is a significance to wine, it is spoken about literally and symbolically throughout scripture and it was common place in the ancient cultures in which the bible is written. That is why it is important to pay attention to wine and how it operates both in scripture and how that contrasts with how our own cultures understand it.
Recently I heard a short history of alcohol in the U.S. which led me to create a broad brush theory as it relates to alcohol consumption and emotional wholeness. Before the theory though, here is a whistle stop tour of the history which I heard;
The first pilgrims who moved to the states attempted to plant vines of the east coast, due to the climate, the vines did not take. So they began to import wine, which made it a drink for the elite, and ensured there was not a common wisdom that could emerge as it related to alcohol on a societal level. Then as an outcome of the industrial revolution, people for the first time in history were able to mass produce hard liqour. In the early 19th Century, hundreds of distilleries appeared and made hard liqour the primary alcoholic beverage of the american people. When wars happened, particularly the civil war, people began to self-medicate for pain and trauma by using hard liqour. Then especially women, married to these traumatised alcoholic soldiers who threw their money at taverns, argued for prohibition and created an all or nothing tee-totalism that arose from very particular circumstances. So in short hard liqour is used to anethetise pain.
In contrast, nations well known for wine production, such as italy and france are known for their strong familial and open emotional postures 1. Wine has an entirely different character to hard liqour. You tend to drink it in community, often with food, and rather than producing forgetfulness, in small quantities it creates, a relaxed safety that produces vulnerability which in turn creates relational connection.
As I considered my own experiences within nations that have what would be considered national drinking cultures, I though of scotland and scandanavia, both who gravitate to hard liqour or spirits and neither who are known for the emotional availability or fluency. In contrast to the many historical wine producing regions which often have strong communitarian and familial bonds.
So, my theory and question is, does wine create community and liquor destroy it? Does wine in moderation create an emotional vulnerability where excessive alcohol creates an emotional shut downess?
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- (of course this whole theory is built on sweeping generalisations but one’s that I think hold up) ↩
Posted on December 10, 2016
Over the last few years, I’ve thought more and more about wine. Growing up in the UK, wine was either brought out for special occasions and namelessly served, or cheap, mass produced wine which was abused by those seeking to self-medicate.
Only since living in South Africa have I been introduced to truly appreciating wine; it’s characteristics, the nuances between grape varietals, the process and care taken to produce this most ancient of agricultural products. South Africa’s wine is so varied1 and affordable2 as to lend itself to an education in the breadth of wine varietals and regions.
Reading the bible, it is hard to get away from wine. It is both a historical artifact of the ancient world, and as with most agricultural processes in scripture, a deeply symbolic and meaningful image.
The symbolism of wine
A few years ago, I was partaking in a eucharist celebration when a friend who was leading the process spoke about the significance and symbolism of the wine making process (rather than just grape juice) as it relates to us remembering Jesus.
- Grapes are grown in specific conditions and require just the right amount of cultivation to produce wine.
- They are then tenderly picked and mostly by hand at the end of a sucessful growing period.
- They are then crushed in order that their inner character can be spilt.
- They then spend time in the tomb underground, maturing, taking on their new and true quality. Also becoming enhanced and empowered by the fermentation process.
- At just the right time they are pulled up from the under ground aging processs and enjoyed around a table, drawing together different people into a common family and enabling an uninhibited sharing.
This is not an intellectualised ode to alcoholism, but rather paying attention to the way in which wine operates in society and the power it has which speaks to something of the character of the power of God;
- It is the produce an seemingly natural item.
- It is processed through the counter-intuitive process of crushing, descending and then distributing a gift that draws people together.
Wine in the Scriptural God Story
Of course it is hard to deny the significance of wine within scripture, it is by far the most spoken about agricultural product (in fact over 1000 references in scripture), and it is chosen by Jesus as a particular way to remember him, and I’ve written before here about some of the possible siginficnance of that.
Wine connects us to our original task in Eden as those that bear the image of God; to take creation and to enhance and draw beauty from our stewardship of it. We are connected to the created order. Just as a musical instrument crafted from the wood from a tree, wine making enhances the creation in a way that it can be offered back to God in the midst of the joy of His people.
We don’t just stand over creation as it’s stewards, we also draw the material of our life from creation. We are in fact, soil with God’s breath in us. The creation account speaks clearly of this, the name adam, literally meaning earth, ground, soil or clay.
Wine in the scriptures speaks of celebration, of abundance, of the success of God’s kingdom people. It speaks of surplas, more than just neccesity.
Wine takes time, it takes a people who own land (another great theme of the scriptures) that have enough to sustain them and so venture to create this luxury good. When Jacob blesses Judah, he speaks of it in terms of huge vines, large enough to tie a donkey to!3 God’s promises to provide for His people, when the spies go to see a promised land they see huge grapes. It is a picture also of a future peaceable land where every person will sit under his own vine 4.
There are a number of encouragements towards wine for general health 5 in scripture as well as the slightly awkward first miracle of Jesus 6 which produces excellent wine to help finish off a party caught in shame at having too little on hand. Whilst certainly there are messianic and symbolic reasons for this particular miracle, the plain fact of it cannot be denied. Jesus is the wine maker, for a party already well under way in terms of it’s wine consumption.
It is also spoken of as something which mocks us if we over-indulge7. Reminding us that in this inbetween time, if the only key we know is celebration and we are not recognising the reality of suffering we will surely be undone.
Another scriptural writer reminds us that the Lord’s love is better than wine. This, another friend once remarked, is not said to create a contrast, as if wine were bad and love were good. It is said to say, this is the very pinnacle of human engenuity and creation production, and yet God’s love is better!
Receiving creation as gift as a remedy to abuse
A few years ago when my friend (who himself was friends with many a wine farmer) said that you will never find a wine farmer who abuses alcohol8, because, he said, they know the labour of it, they know the preciousness of it. Abusing alcohol comes from a mindlessness towards it. Indeed, often those abusing alcohol are seeking to be mindless because of what it is that is tormenting their minds. Instead, wine makers and wine farmers are attentive to the wine, to the land that created it and the effort and tenuous nature of the agrarian life in general.
Part two next week will take further the enjoying God’s gift in creation, thinking about how grape vines image our lives as christians and our cultural immaturity in our relationship to wine.
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- due to a number of micro-climates that lend themselves to wine production) ↩
- both because the pricing has to stay at a level consumate with average incomes but also becuase labour is at an unjustly low level for most labourers. ↩
- genesis 49:11 ↩
- in Micah 4:4 ↩
- 1 Tim 5:23 ↩
- John 2:3 ↩
- Proverbs 20:1 ↩
- and I’m sure exceptions that prove the rule can be found here. ↩
Posted on October 17, 2016
Isaac Aho has written a few things on here before, you can see those here and here. Isaac just finished completing a research project on the practise of the eucharist. The eucharist is practised in as many different ways as there have been christian traditions because Jesus’ words were unequivocle, “Do this to remember me”. I thought I’d ask Isaac what he was learning about this Christian practise;
Q: Isaac, You’ve just finished a season of reflecting, practising and then reflecting on eucharist. What drew you originally to look at this ancient christian practise?
Before doing our DTS1 in 2010, our family had a desire to make christian discipleship something more than a program or bible study; something accessible for all people in every day life.
As we looked at and began to focus on the table as a place of growth it led us to study and see how much Jesus taught, discipled and gathered around food. This brought us to the last supper and saw how He chose bread and wine as the center of how we were to remember Him.
Q: As you look at this christian worship practise through christian history, what stands out as an element that has been lost in modern practise and one element you feel like has been retained (of course this is all broadly speaking)?
If I look at the trajectory of the practice of communion. I believe it has gone from a long, unhurried, intentional meal eaten with an awareness of Jesus as host. To a sometimes hurried part of a larger service that is experienced with either boredom or sometimes dread by the participants. It has moved from a meal to a small wafer and thin juice served in a plastic cup.
Athanasius says “The only alternative to an ascent toward God is a rapid descent into the nothingness which is humanity’s only natural possession apart from God.”
It seems to me the sacrament is moving in the direction of “nothingness”. The Eucharistic custom of bread and wine began to be practiced separate from the Agapa meal or “love feast” sometime in the second century. It soon came to symbolize the meal as the Agapa meal faded from practice. We now have a symbol of a symbol of a symbol as we drink a small sip of grape juice from a plastic cup in a hurried procession. (I am of course talking about the worst of evangelical practice not the church catholic) I can imagine the end will be clicking a wine and bread icon in a virtual community of an iPhone app. This would fit in the description of hell in C.S Lewis book The Great Divorce
Q: What do you think is the root through which this practise might be revived in the church and what fruit might that produce?
I would say the trajectory needs to be changed. Move toward what is real, present and more substantial. Share real bread baked by someone you know. Drink from an actual cup the best wine you have available. Become present in the moment to the worship community around you. Explore and practice your own love feast. Become familiar with the story that you have entered. Heaven and earth have been joined together. The bread and wine are a witness and an actual representation of this coming together. If this is an unfamiliar thought this video could help explore the significance of the bread and wine.
It is symbol in some sense as the wine reminds us of the new covenant. Do you know what this is? If not you can watch the trailer here.
It is also so much more than symbol as God himself has become One with time, space and matter. Every moment, place and thing is inhabited by the Holy.
Q: What is it specifically about the form of worship that made it meaningful enough that Jesus chooses it as the way he is asking to be ‘remembered’?
I can of course say something about this but cannot say everything. I feel it is in the seemingly ordinary elements that the extraordinary is hidden. Julie Canlis says
“Christian spirituality is always relational, always embodied, and always frighteningly ordinary.
You cannot participate in communion without the actual practice or “praxis” of all three.
Q: Sometimes eucharist or communion can be spoken about in way that encourage every mealtime to be considered sacred, the danger of this though seems to be that can be when everything is sacred then arguably nothing ‘feels’ sacred or set apart? On the flipside a highly liturgical, infrequent or set apart practise does not seem to be what jesus is gesturing towards?
I wrestled with this a lot through my reading and study. As I practiced communion around a table with friends I worried that I may be contributing to a flippant or shallow understanding of communion. It was actually your last blog that helped me resolve some of the tension. I think we can in every moment or practice be asking Holy Spirit “What kind of a sacred moment is this” It could be a time for a lighthearted meal with friends. It also could be in a stained glass cathedral in a highly liturgical service. Each are equally holy and sacred. One is just a different kind of holy appropriate for that moment. While I want to make Agape meals and love feast a part of everyday life. I have a growing respect for the parts of the body that have been a bulwark against our “slide into nothingness” through holding fast to tradition and orthodoxy.
Q: How does participating in eucharist form our christian approach to food and the environment more generally?
Seeing God himself as inhabiting creation has to change how we view and steward the earth. I believe Communion properly understood should motivate us to know where our food comes from. Is it produced in a humane and sustainable way? Paul rebuked the church of Corinth for eating without an awareness or love for those participating in the meal. In a globalized economy this could mean people I might never know or see could be participants at my table. I believe we should make an effort to know who these people are and how we are affecting them.
It takes a community to produce the elements of bread and wine. Plant, water, harvest…and should not be taken meaningfully alone. It’s hopefully taken around a table, seeing each other,
Partnership with God- think of manna, fish, we do our part God does His.
Thanks Isaac, if you have any follow up questions please ask them in the comments below!
- A Youth with a Mission training program ↩
Posted on October 10, 2016
Recently I got the chance to lead musical worship at a much larger church than I normally attend and was introduced to something called ‘in-ears’. These are basically fancy headphones that cut out most sound and instead give you the option to create your own mix of your own instrument and the others in the band. It was much more disconcerting than I’d imagined.
You see, I was grew up learning to play the guitar by strumming with all the teenage forearm delivered enthusiasm you’d expect in a side church room to a youth group. No amplification, just me and my guitar and the voices of the folks I was growing up in Christ with. With no amplification you could hear my poorly timed strumming, a guy called Jim’s off key voice, and the girl who fancied herself as a pop star and experimented with harmonies. The point was, we could hear one another.
Once a year we would whisk ourselves off to a huge national youth conference and have the times of our lives. Our poor singing and off beat strumming was replaced with excellent musicianship and the ethereal experience of singing alongside 1000’s of people. There was lights and occasionally even a little fake smoke.
And I loved it.
It is no exaggeration to say that attending that conference and the impact it had on my meagre but sincere youth group through the year was life changing. After every year we would buy an accompanying songbook of the new songs introduced that year, head home to our small side room of our church with the youth group and sing our hearts out. Close our eyes, and If we couldn’t quite ascend to the heights of John’s vision in Revelation, we imagined ourselves back in that big conference tent and our hearts were strangely warmed. We escaped.
More recently a well-known international mega church had their worship band tour through our city. Lots of excitement enused, living in the southern tip of africa that has a perpetual inferiority complex to the rest of the west, people were clambering over one another for tickets. I didn’t go, but the reports were abundant. Much what you would expect, light were low and the bright ones were focussed on the visiting worshippers. They played well-practised swelling tunes and lead prayer that the church in the city would be unified. The only challenge was, the church in the city couldn’t see each other, they were in darkness, literally.
Although we are involved in a church planting ministry that predominantly seeks to plant simple house churches amongst the neglected parts of the earth, I don’t ever want to take cheap (and honestly easily come by) shots at large church ministries and the attractional mega church movement. Partly because, I’m a recipient of God’s ministry through the conference I attended that ran down these same tracks. I honestly can’t imagine where I’d be without those existential, emotionally charged experiences from my teenage years. All that being said, I’ve often been very attentive to the words or theology of particular songs but until recently fairly unreflective of the mode or environment of worship itself. It turns out that not just the content of worship is formative, but the very layout and context of worship. This was wisdom cathedral builders and stained glass window artists were well aware of, but it has been forsaken.
I’ve wondered if certain worship environments are helpful or harmful depending on the phase of life or ‘felt-need’ in a certain season. In most peoples teenage years there is an incessant and haunting self-obsession. Teenagers are constantly aware of what they are doing and saying, how they are being portrayed. They are terrified someone (normally their parents) or something (an activity that has fallen out of fashion within the last 30mins) will embarrass them. In psycholgical language they are hyper-vigilant. When you are in a hyper-vigilant, hyper-self-aware state, the greatest gift you could receive is the self-forgetfulness that comes with the existential crowd worship times. It is, I’m suggesting often why young christian people love large worship gatherings, why unbelieving people love rock concerts and why business executives often love transcendent meditation. The greatest gift is to escape. To escape the busyness, the painful self-awareness, the sense of not being enough.
As I grew a little older in Christian faith I didn’t discount these large and transcendent experiences but I started to realise that they didn’t fulfill all of the needs of the Christian life. When things are difficult the conference is still months down the road. Who is there? Well out of tune Jim and the harmony girl from the youth group. Suddenly their additions to worship times and your life in community more generally, although quirky, becomes the very ministry of God to you. In 1 Corinthians 14:261 the writer is giving us a normative reflection of worship in the early church. One has a song, a word, a prophecy, a psalm, a teaching. Each one delivered by someone with a name, a past, maybe even someone who you have unforgiveness in your heart towards. But they are there, and you know them and see their face. They are not the stranger in the dark at your side as you gaze as the well-lit group ahead covered by wafts of smoke.
Later in life, my motivations are not so much to escape but to inhabit. Inhabit the community with the off-key singers and the embarrassing parent, because every spiritual quest to escape requires us to wake up. And we wake up alongside people with names, people with quirks and part of the journey of discipleship is to realise that those people are God’s gifts in our lives. They are the peole with the songs, the psalms, the prophecies and the lessons. Admittedly the songs aren’t well performed and the lessons might not be as well polished as the platform speakers, but they are our people. In my youth I often believed I had to ascend to heaven by shutting my eyes extra tight to see God, but now I am realised the good news that, as is popularly repeated from the message translation, “God has moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1) and He is living inside off-tune Jim and all his quirky friends....every spiritual quest to escape requires us to wake up Click To Tweet
Much of this escapism can be traced back to a cult that threatened the message of christianity from it’s early days. The cult of gnosticism, believing God to be perfect and pure and recognising that our bodies and creation itself often wasn’t. Gnostics believed only the pure part of us, our soul, could dwell with God. It’s a familiar story, change a few key words and it was the gospel many of us were told. This is our ‘great escape’ gospel. Does this sound familiar, “put off your flesh” “saving souls”, “going to heaven” – all biblically rooted things to be sure, but they became the gnostic impulses that were distilled from a God-story that is in fact very earthy and embodied.
A God created matter and called it good, A God became flesh and dwelled amongst us, He resurrected in a new body, He ascended in that body, and He is coming back to establish his new kingdom on this earth remade. His plan has always been to inhabit, to dwell, not for us to escape.
- 26 What should be done [during worship times]then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. ↩
Posted on September 22, 2016
Normally in evangelical circles we think of mission as something that we do for God, or at best with God that helps communicate the message of God’s forgiveness of sins. While I don’t disagree with that description, it is not as rich and as all encompassing as the biblical narrative frames it. In the first description, mission doesn’t make much sense any time before the cross, and arguably before pentecost. But God has been on mission all through His story and although we won’t get far without being saved from sin and death, God’s story, focuses on what we are saved for more than what we are saved from.
Often we think of mission as something we do to obey God and win the lost, evangelism and church planting. But the bible shows us that in fact God was engaged in mission long before we came on the scene, He has a plan and a purpose for creation and He chooses to include us, He chooses to ask us to come along and co-create with Him.
Chris Wright1 helps us see the larger scope
“God’s purpose is to bring a broken creation, spoiled at every level, that is at the level of individual human hearts through culture and societies, nations and brokeness at an international level, right through to the brokenness of creation itself. To bring a world like that, that we see in Genesis Ch 1-11, to a world that is being renewed, restored and purged of evil in the new creation at the end of Revelation.”
In this scope, God is doing things in His world, through His people to the end of the redeeming of everything that God has created.
So being involved in God’s mission is not just the realm of evangelists and church planters. Skye Jethani says the three things that characterised Eden were beauty, order and abundance. Certainly those things take place first as right relationship with God and others, but once we are included in the very life of Christ the outflow of our lives that contribute to the re-newing, re-ordering, re-generating of all of creation is activity that is on mission with God too.
This means that the value of making art, of working for rightness and justice in a work place, and creating jobs are not just useful to God to the extent to which you can witness in those places, but they themselves are part of God’s work through His people to renew the world.
Is God interested in your co-worker at work or co-student at art class hearing about God’s invitation to new life with Him? Certainly, but He is also working through your work to the extent to which you are contributing to the increase of beauty, order and abundance of society and creation.
That’s good news for followers of Jesus who feel left out if they are not involved in the erroneously named ‘full-time ministry’.